How to go from homebrewer to pro in 5 years

You say you’ve got mad beer-making skills and you’d go pro if only you had the time to step up your game?

Send the old ball-and-chain out of town.

It worked for John Wible, who went from a complete noob to head brewer at 2nd Story Brewing, in Old City, in just five years.

He looked almost sheepish as he recounted the story Monday afternoon, as the first customers streamed into his new brewpub, operating out of the space that Triumph Brewing had occupied for the last seven years.

“My girlfriend went to Vancouver for school,” Wible said. “What can I say? Without a girlfriend in town, you have a lot of time on your hands . . .

“I had been drinking craft beer for only a couple of months at the time, but I called a friend and said, ‘We should try homebrewing.’ I worked about a half-hour from Keystone Homebrew Supply [in Montgomeryville], so I bought a kit. We brewed one batch and I was hooked.”

He soon found himself brewing every chance he got, experimenting with every beer style he could think of. He bought decent equipment, moved from simple extracts to more complex all-grain recipes, and was soon winning prizes. His friends loved his beer.

Wible’s girlfriend eventually found her way back home, but her return hardly killed his hobby. In fact, it only made this story better.

The two got married. It was on their honeymoon at the Omni Hotel, two blocks from Triumph, that Wible discovered that the brewpub was for sale.

Wible mentioned it to his new mother-in-law, Debbie Grady, who owns and works a 90-acre farm in Pottstown. The mother of six was ready to move onto something new, and a restaurant seemed to be the ticket.

So, here we are, five years after he gave homebrewing a try, and Wible – a former IT professional who never had any formal beer-making schooling – is pouring me a glass of ale he cooked not on his kitchen stove, but in an imposing, 15-barrel, stainless-steel, steam-heated brewhouse. And not just an average beer, but a very fresh, delicious, toffee-like English mild that, at just 3.7 percent alcohol content, can be guzzled all night without sending you headfirst down 2nd Story’s open staircase.

What inspired him to make this ale, called Five-Mile Ale, I wonder. Adnams? Batemans? Some other famous English-style mild?

“Believe it or not,” Wible said, “I’ve never even tasted a classic British mild. The only ones I’ve ever had are American interpretations, like Yards Brawler. . . . I mainly just read the BJCP [Beer Judge Certification Program] specs and designed it the way I thought it should taste.”

Now, Wible is hardly the first person to open a brewery without formal training. Sam Calagione, the inventive founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, is a prime local example of a successful, self-taught professional brewer.

Still, Wible’s speedy rise from hobbyist to head brewer is a bit mind-boggling. I asked him if it was a daunting challenge, opening 2nd Story.

“Surprisingly,” he said, “I was not all that worried. I knew I’d be able to figure things out.”

Sure, there was a bit of confusion at first.

He had to mark the brewery’s plumbing fixtures with a Sharpie to remind himself where various hoses should be attached. And Patrick Jones, one of Tap list at 2nd Story Brewing in PhiladelphiaTriumph’s former brewers, briefed him on brewhouse operations.

But Wible said that brewing on a professional system is easier than homebrewing, where the biggest challenges are temperature control during mashing and quickly chilling the boiled wort for fermentation. Homebrewers typically use rudimentary equipment that can make precision difficult.

In a brewhouse, both are achieved with calibrated equipment and push-button controls.

“It’s a huge advantage to be using a larger system,” he said.

No doubt there will be bumps along the way. Me referring in print to Wible’s wife as the “old ball and chain” might be one of them.

But right out of the gate, the nine beers I tasted – from a nicely hopped Tilted Barn farmhouse ale (named after Grady’s farm) to an outstanding, strong (7.5 percent alcohol) Colonial Porter made with rye and molasses – are an excellent addition to the city’s beer scene.

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By the way, if you’re interested in making your own beer and following in Wible’s footsteps, mark Nov. 1 on your calendar. It’s Learn to Homebrew Day, a nationwide event in which homebrew shops share brewing tips, recipes and other resources with newbies.

Even if you’re not looking for a new career, it’s still a fun hobby that will improve your appreciation of your favorite adult beverage.

Here’s a list of area homebrew shops where you can get your start.

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Photo of John Wible by Hadas Kuznits, CBSPhilly.

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Comments

  1. Michael Karolitzky  October 23, 2014

    Jealous, but good for him! Great to hear us IT guys can do something else!

    Good luck!